The damaged dome of Our Lady of Angels Church, which collapsed Sunday afternoon, is seen from an adjacent rooftop in the Guerrero neighborhood of Mexico City, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. Violent cracks crisscrossed the dome, and stone from the roof continued to fall onto the church's wooden pews in the aftermath pf the 7.1-magnitude earthquake. On Sunday evening, the cupola split and half crashed to the floor. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Mexico quake leaves country's historic churches battered

September 24, 2017 - 11:43 pm

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Our Lady of Angels Church has survived several major earthquakes, but Tuesday's magnitude 7.1 shake proved to be the final death knell for the Mexico City building's historic cupola.

Violent cracks crisscrossed the dome, and stone from the roof continued to fall onto the church's wooden pews. On Sunday evening, the cupola split and half crashed to the floor.

"Each earthquake has left its mark," said Marco Antonio Fuentes, part of the church's ministry. "This one seems to be the straw that will break the camel's back."

According to the Archdiocese of Mexico, more than 150 religious temples in this deeply Roman Catholic country were damaged by Tuesday's deadly quake. Statues of saints have been left maimed, missing hands and feet. Once towering, celestial church naves now open to the sky. Dust from fallen stone and concrete cover altars.

Many of the battered churches are in the state of Puebla, where the quake's epicenter was located. There in the city of Atzala, a child's baptism turned into tragedy when the roof of a church collapsed, killing 11 family members inside, including the 2-month-old girl being christened.

On the first Sunday since the earthquake, priests no longer able to say Mass inside collapsing churches instead held services outside paying homage to victims and survivors.

"Our religion is more than a building," Colin Noguez, the priest at Our Lady of Angels, told parishioners inside a tent with a table holding a cross and candles from the building.

Many of the collapsed buildings where rescuers have been searching for survivors held offices and apartments, places where people worked and lived. The damage to churches hit a different chord — striking places that in many Mexican cities serve as pillars of strength in times of distress.

"It's our mother," Azalia Ramirez, 60, said of Our Lady of Angels, which sits in a working class neighborhood. "We come here looking for communion, peace and tranquility."

Our Lady of Angels is believed to be the most heavily damaged church in Mexico City, while the severity of destruction to religious structures is largely concentrated in Puebla.

In Atzala, a town of 1,200 people, little remains of the golden yellow church with a red roof where the 11 people died. The interior where worshippers once prayed from pews is now a mess of twisted metal and fallen stone leading to an altar where the word "merciful" now hangs at a slant.

"Everything happened in the blink of an eye," said Sergio Montiel, the church's sexton.

As the Santiago de Apostol church shifted to recovery mode, a planned wedding instead took place outside under a beige tent with mariachi players standing nearby. The bride and groom exchanged rings and a kiss before being showered with rice and confetti just feet from the destruction.

"I'm very sad for the church," said Aremy Sanchez, the bride. "But we must go on."

At Mass in Puebla and elsewhere, priests urged parishioners to use the painful moment as a time of reflection. Damaged churches held mass in plazas and auditoriums. In San Francisco Xochiteopan, clergy members moved broken statues of saints into a gym and proceeded with a service. At the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a national shrine in Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera asked God to deliver peace.

"It pains us to see our city hurt, so many hopes lost," he said, speaking before a giant Mexican flag. "For that reason, we come to you, consoler of the afflicted."

The origin of Our Lady of Angels dates back 433 years, when a painting of the Virgin Mary transported by a Spanish ship was found to have been damaged by water during the journey. A painter in the city's then-predominantly indigenous community was commissioned to create a replica.

The replica, cracked and with progressively fading paint, has stood at the altar from the time the church was little more than a small hut to its present-day construction, built in the 19th century. The Virgin Mary painting has withstood seven floods and more earthquakes than parishioners can remember.

"I say Our Lady of Angels holds the miracle of perseverance," said Adela Corona, a member of the ministry.

Engineers told the church's leaders that the cupola has a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of collapsing. It contains stained glass brought from Germany depicting singing archangels. Projecting above the roof, the cupola is meant to symbolize how the church brings those inside closer to God.

"It is an important part of our historical heritage," Fuentes said as the sound of small bits of the dome falling onto the floor echoed in the church. "Our idea is to save it."

But just hours later, half the cupola came crashing down. No one was inside and the painting of the Virgin Mary, protected by a glass case, appeared unscathed.

"Hijole," Fuentes said after the dome fell, using a popular Spanish word to express astonishment. "There's sadness, surprise and fear for those who live here."

But, he added, the Virgin Mary painting's survival is what mattered: "She's the boss here."

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Associated Press photographer Natacha Pisarenko in San Francisco Xochiteopan contributed to this report.

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